Into a New World*

Granted, Beijing is not new to me in the sense that I had not been there before. However, for one, I have never lived there – and this seems to be my personal standard of “knowing” a place – and for another, the last time I spent any real time in Beijing was in 2004. That is a whole decade ago. For scale, this was:

  • before the Beijing Olympics, the Bird’s Nest, the Water Cube;
  • when previous president Hu Jintao was only one year into his “term”, and the joke about president “Who” and deputy “When” (Wen Jiabao) was still funny;
  • the time of the Motorola RAZR series of mobile phones.

Given China’s famously rapid development of late, it did in fact feel like a new world.

This post will effectively be about setting up shop in Beijing, as a visiting researcher, and will be somewhat Peking University (PKU)-centred. However, I imagine that some aspects in the mentality of going to far-flung universities for a short, intense period of work will be at least comparable to my account. From my subjective perspective, I suggest the following for a relatively sane arrival.

  1. Make plans to talk to your on-location supervisor or, if you do not have one, find the admissions tutor or whoever is closest to a “pastoral care” person in your department to help you settle in.
  2. If you have a (one – or more) room-mate, and you have NOT had one before, I would go into it with neutral expectations. You cannot estimate what a complete stranger is going to be like. Fortunately, I turned out to be lucky in the respect that we got along very well, but I have heard of feuds elsewhere.
  3. Find a map of campus, walk everywhere to find what you need, and time how long it takes between the various places you will have to go to. If bicycles are common, look into that option.
  4. Especially if you have compulsory classes.
  5. Join some societies to make non-academic friends. Also make friends with the staff at your university halls. Can never have too many friends.
  6. Make academic friends. (What did I say about friends?)
  7. Learn public transport and explore the city. Beijing is unbelievably dense in cars. And I really mean that. Conjure up an imaginary city that is dense in cars… Beijing will probably have a higher density of cars that what you are imagining. Taxis in China (especially away from hubs like Beijing and Shanghai) are inexpensive compared to the UK, but, well, do you not want to feel like a local?
  8. Besides, at one point, I had to take a taxi from Beijing South Railway Station to Peking University campus because I arrived after the last train. Aside from the fact that I had to queue for a length of time I decided not to time for fear of depression, a single underground (the preferred mode of transport) ticket costs 2RMB. The taxi journey cost 80RMB. That’s 4000% more.
  9. Granted, 80RMB, roughly £8 may not be so much for a taxi journey, but in the end it is a taxi journey. 80RMB spent in the heavily subsidised university canteens – where most students eat their regular meals – will take you through nearly a whole week of lunches and dinners, depending on your appetite.
  10. Find a good spot to study on campus. There will be millions of choices, but there is always one that is just the right temperature, has a decent wifi signal and just the right facilities for you, be they coffee, bathroom, water fountain, lots of sun, no sun at all, quiet hum, deathly silence, or something else.
  11. Ask library staff or one of your newly-made local friends,  nicely, to give you a library tour, and the various uses of your student ID. At PKU, your student card works as your library card, your entry ticket to campus (there is security at all the gates), the card on which you can charge money to pay for your meals, your university internet, and your shopping at the cornershops and greengrocers on campus.
  12. At the risk of sounding very stereotypical, but I have found this to be the case: find out from local friends if there are cheaper options for fruit, veg, and other products typical [country you are visiting – hereafter “China”] than in the campus shops within [your choice of radius]; ask your international friends if they know the same information for large supermarkets.
  13. While it may be obvious to learn about [China] from your newly-made local friends, the international visitors’ residence at PKU can have long-time residents, who have been around for upwards five years (if they are a medic), and others who are only in town for summer school – there can be plenty to learn from them too. Especially if you haven’t had the time to pick up on your Chinese yet.
  14. Walk a small circle around the outer boundaries of your residential area and note down facilities (outdoor exercise parks, small eateries for when you are tired of canteen food, etc).
  15. Engage in Chinese social media. Weixin, Weibo, QQ. You might as well get with the programme.

…also, try one of everything. In every respect. Don’t miss out.

Ultimately, I will go with the old cliché that friends (and family, if applicable) can make any place seem like home. I am aware that this entry may have skewed slightly towards the social, but I genuinely cannot stress enough how much easier it was for me (Chinese-speaker thing aside) to settle in to WORK because I had friends and acquaintances to ask when there was something I was unsure about.

Granted, do you remember my first reactions on arriving in Beijing? They went like this.

Oh, you want pictures? Needy! Well, have some examples.

This is an “okay” day for cars.
These are good ways to get cultural – in English – in Beijing.
This is a part of campus landscape.
This is a part of the nutritional offerings on campus.
How did that get there?
A library with the best roofing work this side of the Great Wall.
While I was there, we would all (and I do mean ALL, as postgraduate over-the-summer-holidays dwellers on campus) complain a little about all the tourists on site, but it it truly is a campus that needs a viewing.

Question: I have been ruminating for a long time about starting a strand that deals with an individual’s experiences of inter-sectional issues in society. Would this be something you would like to read?

*Depending on your musical preferences, this could be a Dvořák or a Girls’ Generation reference. Your call.

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